Global goals lack local focus

23 May 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jun 2019

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are nearly four years old. High-level strategies for the world (or 193 UN member nations) to build a “better and more sustainable future”. Too few people know what they are.

If you have never heard of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), you’re not alone.

Ratified by the UN’s 193 member nations in 2015, they are the blueprint for tackling humanity’s major issues with a united front: governments and civic societies working together under a trans-national ethos for change.

Protect the environment, protect ecologies, end poverty, with peace and prosperity and liberty for all. So, even if you’ve never heard of the SDGs (there are 17), you can probably guess the sorts of things they say.

But, given there are problems we face that either require a worldwide approach or, at least, are more easily tackled with some sort of global ethos

The aims of the SDGs have significant overlap with the mission of the third sector, taken as a whole. If anyone knows about the UN goals, it should be people involved with voluntary or community organisations or social enterprises.

NICVA recently undertook a survey of its members to find out how aware they are of the SDGs and to what extent they drive the sector’s work.


Per NICVA’s survey:

  • 51.9% of respondents were aware of the UN SDGs
  • Good Health and wellbeing, reduced inequalities and gender equality were identified as the Goals which were of most relevance to member organisations
  • 14.3% of respondents intentionally set out to undertake work to become aligned to the SDGs
  • 70.2% of respondents unintentionally set out to undertake work to become aligned to the SDGs
  • 20.5% of respondents believed that the SDGs were very important to their organisation
  • The main SDGs that organisations felt should be adopted were Good Health and Wellbeing, Reduced Inequalities and Gender Equality
  • 40.1% of respondents said that they would consider undertaking more work to align with SDGs, however 51.2% said they didn’t know.

There are several ways to interpret some of these figures – the fact that over two thirds of respondents unintentionally set out to undertake work as part of the SDGs is an expression of civic society’s interest in improving communities, whether local or writ large.

Whether this means the SDGs are failing to properly tie together efforts to make the improvements they propose, or that plenty of good work is already going on – and will continue to progress, in parallel to any centralised plans – which shows how there is plenty to build on working towards the goals, is another question.

However, if nearly half of respondents from the third sector could not say they were aware of the SDGs, it seems clear that more needs to be done to raise awareness.

Lack of awareness

It is fair to assume that awareness of the SDGs among the general public is almost certainly significantly lower than the figures for the community and voluntary sector.

These goals are almost four years old – a quarter of their entire lifespan, from 2015 to 2030. So, they are not new, not old, and efforts to realise their aims should be taking shape.

The UN has called on all member states to develop national strategies for the SDGs. Northern Ireland has no such strategy or implementation plan (albeit the civil service has carried out a mapping exercise to see how its 2018-19 Outcomes Delivery Plan aligns with the SDGs).

The UK does (which does not excuse NI from one) and is currently undertaking a Voluntary National Review to measure progress against the goals - but its approach has come under criticism, including from the Environmental Audit Committee at Westminster.

These goals exist for a reason. We signed up to them for a reason. This isn’t even anything new – the SDGs are a replacement from the Millennium Goals, the UN’s 15-year plan for 2000-2015.

More can be asked because more can be done.

What now?

Siobhan McAlister, Policy Development Officer at NICVA, wrote: “NICVA is exploring how the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector can play a leading role in promoting the delivery of the SDGs here in NI.

“We are now four years into the SDGs framework and there has been little meaningful action taken by our local government or civil service to work towards the commitments it made in 2015 to the SDGs.

“There is an important role for the sector here to ensure that NI takes seriously its responsibility to the SDGs and the voluntary and commuity sector must begin to facilitate this delivery and hold the government to account…

“Successful delivery of the SDGs will rely on civil society organisations working together effectively and working with government and wider sectors to ensure commitments are met. There is now an opportunity for civil society to come together and take a proactive and leadership position in the delivery of the SDGs.

“NICVA is actively seeking further ideas on how the voluntary and community sector could develop its role in promoting the delivery of the SDGs- we want to hear from the sector about how we can take this forward.”

This makes sense. The SDGs’ aims are laudable. Some problems require cooperation on a grand scale. A framework exists – let’s use it.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.